THE SCREEN SCENE (WRBL) – On October 24, 2004, a small indie horror film called Saw was released in theaters. The film was made for around $1.2 million and grossed over $100 million worldwide. It launched the careers of the creators behind the camera.

Director James Wan went on to direct The Conjuring (2013), Furious 7 (2015), The Conjuring 2 (2016) and Aquaman (2018). Screenwriter Leigh Wannell went on to write the Insidious series and write and direct the 2018 sci-fi thriller Upgrade and last year’s reboot of The Invisible Man.

Any film that grosses 100 times its budget is destined for something more than just fame for its creators, and that’s sequels. Lots of sequels. From 2005 to 2010, Saw films became an annual Halloween tradition. Although the seventh film was called Saw: The Final Chapter, there is no truth in advertising. After a seven-year hiatus, an eighth film, Jigsaw, premiered in October 2017. Its worldwide gross was almost identical to the first film, but in the modern era of megablockbusters, it was considered a financial disappointment.

The latest Saw film, Spiral, was scheduled to hit theaters last October, but COVID derailed its Halloween season release. In an effort to convince younger movie-goers that Spiral is a Saw film for a new era, the film carries the subtitle: From the Book of Saw. Movie execs love a cinematic universe, but subtitle or not, this film is Saw 9, and Saw fatigue has clearly set in.

For the first ten minutes, Spiral seems like a promising reboot, sequel, sidequel, whatever you want to call it. Detective Zeke Banks (played by Chris Rock) is on an undercover operation. He burns off his nervous energy by riffing on the fact that Forrest Gump could never be filmed in our “woke” version of America. It’s a moment of Chris Rock stand-up before the action kicks in. He’s like Axel
Foley in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) just before he whips out his badge and gun and
arrests everyone.

Unfortunately, this unexpected new tone disappears after a handful of scenes, and Spiral becomes just another Saw movie. Someone wearing a pig’s head mask is copycatting the Jigsaw murders and creating elaborate booby traps that result in grisly deaths for the victims. As with all the previous movies, the victim-to-be is shown a video of the copycat explaining his or her particular sins or
misdeeds with an explanation as to why the trap is a perfectly-constructed punishment.

The only new wrinkle: the copycat appears to be targeting crooked cops. That development could come with some very interesting political subtext, but Spiral doesn’t want to “go there.” So, the film becomes yet another generic horror film that is more gory than scary. Even the star power of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as Rock’s father can’t kick-start this lackluster story to life.

Not only is it a rehash of the previous Saw films, but even the police plot beats are all tired clichés. Detective Banks turned in a crooked cop thirteen years ago, and no one wants to work with him. Yes, thirteen years later, people are still putting dead rats in his chair. Banks tends to go rogue and “crosses the line” to catch the bad guys and earns the wrath of his lieutenant. In 2021, his lieutenant is a Latina rather than a middle-aged white guy, but the storyline is still far too familiar.

For horror fans, this is likely an “eye of the beholder” film. Fans of the Saw franchise will have to see the film and judge it for themselves. I’d recommend taking your money and your two hours to check out In the Earth, The Mortuary Collection, The Vigil or Jakob’s Wife. All four are stellar horror films that are currently available on VOD.

Spiral is currently playing in theaters.